To ensure success in battle, Jephthah – an outlaw and a fighter with political ambitions - promises God to sacrifice to him whoever or whatever comes out of his house first on his return from the fight. As he approaches home, victorious, it is his daughter, his only child, coming out of the house first to greet him.
Child sacrifice is not an unusual topic in the Bible, as in the Greek mythology, (Itzhak among the ones most often represented in figurative art, although God did send an angel to stop the infanticide) consistent with the idea that, the more precious the offering, the more devout the person making the sacrifice.
In Mira Kliger’s painting Jephthah’s daughter, this young girl without a name and apparently without a mother, looks happy, dancing among the pink and blue flowers to the sound of timbrels, as was the custom. In the doorway, a soldier holds his head in his hands, realising the consequence of this rush promise. He is wearing army fatigues and boots, on his shoulder a modern rifle. He is back from a battle he has won; but we are reminded that in war there are no winners.
After the storm, the series of paintings depicting a small girl standing on a pile of concrete and wood urban debris, holding a doll in her arms and smiling, makes this point clearly.
In Mira’s work, biblical characters come to life in disconcerting manner; Naomi and her daughters-in-law, Adam and Eve, Hagar, Samson and Delilah – they all look like neighbours in a nice middle class suburb of a 21st century European city. The baby in Madonna is wearing a Babygro and looks towards his Teddy. Featured in classic composition, painted with vigorous strokes and definite figurative style, these characters are so easy to identify with: their story is mine and my friends’.
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you
One night when King David couldn’t sleep, he walked on the terrace of his penthouse and saw Bathsheba bathing. He liked what he saw and sent for her, seduced her and made her pregnant. But Bathsheba was married, and David’s first thought was to send her husband home from the battle, so that the child could be passed as his. When this plan didn’t work, he sent Bathsheba’s husband to his death. What inspired such passion, such disregard for ethics? It was obviously her beauty – and the moonlight. The text doesn’t say much about her thoughts and feelings – did she reciprocate King David’s feelings? Did she resent his power over her and her husband?
From Artemisia Gentileschi to Rembrandt, the paintings of this episode feature Bathsheba in the company of servants or with David. In Mira’s paintings she’s alone, wrapped in a towel, looking rubenesquely magnificent, striding confidently. Strong, confident women seem a recurring theme in Mira’s paintings. Dressed in modern strong colours or white vests, painted with decisive brush strokes, the women resemble the figures we see in post-war realism posters of Soviet working women – powerful, determined, yet resolutely feminine.
At the centre of many of your paintings there is a strong woman. Why do you choose them?
I am not entirely sure that some women, or men for that matter, are intrinsically strong. People find themselves in circumstances that demand they should find their strength. I choose to represent in my paintings women from contemporary everyday life. The historical characters I portray reflect the universal themes of motherhood, love, choice, the fight for equality.
What draws you to the stories and the characters of the Bible?
Like Aesop and La Fontaine fables, the stories and parables of the Bible are designed to prepare us for life. I don’t think one needs to have faith to resonate with these messages. I found the language very visually suggestive, very pictorial. The characters are flesh and blood, with strengths and weaknesses just like us. Their actions are guided by love, hate, revenge. The messages are full of empathy, yet filled with a rigorous sense of justice.
As in literature, and in real life, there are figures we identify with and with whom we become friends. Sometimes I am curious about a character and their untold story – how did they get to the situation in which we find them? Some characters recall people I know in real life. Bathsheba, for instance, is my friend Ariela who lives alone on the top floor of an apartment block; she carries her body with grace, her image conveys warmth and sensuality. David would have fallen in love with her too. Having the biblical characters and my life models walking the same piece of land I know so well, makes me feel close to them, adds to the sense of familiarity.
Who do you regard as having had the strongest influence on your art?
Of the many artists that have made an impression on me and my work, I think the earliest is Rembrandt – the etchings of trees, the abstract way in which he marks the tiniest detail, each tree with its own, perfect rhythm. I admire Lucien Freud and the way he applies colour; and Francis Bacon, with his challenging compositions. David Hockney and Grayson Perry impress me with their constant creative innovation, the reinvention of themselves and their art. It’s a long list …
How do you give life to a painting? How do you make it seductive?
The process of my painting is an adventure, an exploration from line and colour to shape and volume, using brush, knife, fingers. It’s like a dance on the canvas, sometime delicate pointes, at other times stumping in a rage. It’s the journey of creation that I consider seductive, rather than the finished painting.
In your opinion, what makes your art unique?
My purpose is not to flatter or create pretty pictures; I want to create an atmosphere with the colours, the composition and interesting textures. I hope to be able to convey emotions, and a rhythm that fits the subjects in the painting, just as an actor on stage would slip into the skin of his character.
Mira Kliger “Bible Stories” is at the Gallery du Forez Paris from 21st October to 9th December 2017.